In the process of supporting an anorexic in recovery, there are a number of changes to observe. Weight is the easy one. You can chart it on a sheet and watch the upward slope, worry over the downward blips and count the days till the entry into ‘Normal’ BMI, ie 18.5. L is currently 18.4 and while I am really pleased about this, she is less certain. I am sure the voice of Ed tells her she will no longer be special at a normal BMI, no longer an exceptional person who has the discipline to resist. We see a healthy young woman returning, with shiny hair and skin that blooms rather than the grey white pallor of a few months ago. She is still very thin, but doesn’t cause people to wince when they see her. When I hug her I can feel a person, not a skeleton.
But weight is a symptom, not the illness, although her weight restoration strengthens her to fight the illness. Her behaviours and her mood often seem to have unchanged. She finds new or strange food difficult, she resists the food she loves most – L loves mince pies and so far not one has passed her lips this year. She becomes downcast, fearful and angry when faced with food, especially when it is at our insistence. She chews food in tiny forkfuls, carefully and deliberately. A takeaway pizza or curry both still seem unthinkable. But this weekend, I have seen little flashes of the L before anorexia. She has laughed and joked, challenged me to tickling fights and has giggled in the way every single teenage girl should giggle. What I hope most of all is that this isn’t an act, designed to stop us worrying or to detract from food. It is so hard to interrupt a manically laughing teenager making hilarious jokes, to tell her it is time for a snack and see the laughter evaporate. From what I know now, the times when we thought she was happy, were also times when she felt second best and never good enough. I hope the medication is working, not to produce a chemical happiness, but to suppress the demons to allow her to rediscover her happy self.
I know that we will never have the old L back. Her illness has been with her for nearly two years – and in that time, any teenager will change and develop. I am impatient for the new L to emerge. I want her to feel stronger, to know that through her illness and recovery she has learned life lessons few of her contemporaries will ever learn, to discover that happiness and contentment have to be here and now, not when we have lost weight, passed exams, found the perfect shoes or redecorated. Waiting for things to be better will only ever be a fruitless chase for an illusory peace that is already here for us if we just choose to look hard enough. The last year has been one of the worst of my life, but I too have to learn that same lesson – life with L and anorexia has been painful and distressing, but there has also been joy and happiness and if I wait for her to be better for life to improve, I will have failed to grasp this lesson too.